Rainwater collection saves landscapes

Photos Courtesy of Rain or Shine Outdoors.

Jeff Pico, a landscaper in McDonough, Ga., is changing the entire focus of his business in order to combat drought conditions. Pico, owner of JP Landscapes, Inc., which also does business as Rain Or Shine Outdoors, is focusing on a couple of areas in which homeowners can save, and even collect, irrigation water. Maybe it’s because Pico grew up in Arizona, or maybe it’s because he feels that conserving water is the right thing to do in a world where it is a scarce commodity, but in any case, he is committed. Part of his change of focus is forced by an economic downturn which has stalled his normal installation business, but that has only stiffened his resolve.

“That’s why I say I’m changing the thrust of my company a bit,” says Pico, who started this company in 2000 and has a few maintenance contracts that provide financial continuity. He figures that if there is no money in construction (his business used to be about half new installations, both residential and commercial), he will change his focus to renovating old residential irrigation systems for efficiency. If there isn’t enough water, he will find a way to provide more.

Jeff Pico talks with Marijke Strachan, director of the Goddard School in Buford, Ga. Since the spring of 2008,he has installed 11 water storage systems.

As the drought pervaded Georgia, he began doing some research to try to find a way to collect more of the water that fell as rain. He saw that the Atlanta Botanical Gardens had installed some large concrete tanks for that purpose, and he came across a landscape supply company that was providing water storage units. This resulted in a collaboration with Rain Catchers, LLC in McDonough on the design and installation of water tanks that could make the most of the water that fell.

Pico, who has a degree in marketing, but has worked at everything from an irrigation and sod installer to a bar bouncer, says that by installing a large water tank on a property, a homeowner can store up enough water to supplement his normal irrigation. He can also save it for times when the landscape irrigation restrictions are at their strictest. In this way, a homeowner can save plants.

“For every 1,000 square feet of roof space you can collect 600 to 620 gallons of water in a 1-inch rainfall,” Pico says, citing standard runoff figures. By talking to prospective clients about this, he has been involved in the installation of 10 tank systems from March to November. If the tanks are buried underground, they can be hidden with landscaping.

He has installed plastic tanks as small as 1,700 gallons, but his installations average about 3,400 gallons, or two small tanks. Larger homes will require 5,000 gallons in size, he projects. Usually that is in the form of two tanks. They are normally buried in an 8-foot-deep hole, with a riser to the surface to allow for cleaning and installation of a submersible pump in the unit. This usually allows for 20 inches of dirt over the rest of the tank. Some clients place the tanks aboveground if they have room for them on their properties.

Pico says the water is supplied by runoff from the home roof, with gutters and downspouts made from durable PVC, which also allows the water to gush down with very little friction and avoid backup. At the bottom of the downspout, a special filter is installed that keeps sediment and debris out of the tank, although the filter may be far from the house if the tank is far from the house. The Rainwater Management Solutions filters that he uses generally utilize 280-micron screens and a vortex internal motion that provide a degree of self-cleaning, though he doesn’t advertise them as providing potable water.

Using 1 hp Gould submersible pumps, Pico installs a system that allows the homeowner to pump the water out through the normal sprinkler or drip irrigation system. Pressure can be provided in one of two ways. A small pressure storage tank can be installed aboveground, allowing also the addition of hose bibs to the system, or a pump-start relay can be added to the irrigation controller, which will activate the tank water pump.

These AquaBlox by Aquascape, Inc. are stacked in a hole in the ground toprovide a water reservoir.

“We’re strictly looking at supplementing outdoor water use,” he notes. It is nearly impossible to provide all the water a landscape would need. Potable water could be provided, however, by adding a reverse osmosis filter to the delivery pipes. Normally this system would be entirely separate from the house water lines.

Pico has also installed one modular “crate” rainwater collection system. He built a 15,000-gallon storage reservoir for the Goddard School in Buford, Ga., which utilized thousands of interlocking plastic crates called AquaBlox manufactured by Aquascape, Inc. They were installed in a 25-by-25-foot hole, 10 feet deep, with the crates stacked almost 5 feet high. The crates interlock like Legos for strength. This provides a cavity that is priced even lower than a tank system per gallon. The crates cost about $3 per gallon of storage, while two tanks equaling 3,400 gallons of storage would cost about $12,000 to $14,000. This is including installation costs.

“This modular system doesn’t come into play until you get up to 12,000 gallons or more in storage,” Pico says. The crates are stacked in the hole over a rubber pond liner, the total module sized to fit the particular home site. The rubber liner is laid over a felt pad that protects it from punctures. Then the liner is folded up at the edges, and the felt is laid over the entire top of the crates. Dirt can then be backfilled over the felt, which protects the water from contamination, and with several feet of dirt over it, the reservoir can be landscaped or even driven on with a vehicle.

Pico points out that this system requires an overflow area, and it too can be fitted with a submersible pump and pressure tank just the way individual water tanks are. Tied into the home irrigation system, this makes a lot of water available during a drought. Drain spouts from the school’s roof were routed directly to the filters and then to the felt over the crates, and the same type of vortex filters were used at the ends of the drain spouts.

He notes that the installation of such systems is “in its infancy” in Georgia, but there is a lot of interest in rainwater collection worldwide (for a survey of information and products available, go to He is avidly trying to educate the public about the possibilities through his company Web site, as well as at free seminars he gives in the area. He says that as long as water is as cheap as it is in Georgia, despite its scarcity at times, it is difficult to convince people to make such large investments.

The other focus of his business is renovating existing irrigation systems to make them more efficient. Pico is down to a crew of three from a high of 14 employees because of the economic downturn, and most of their time is spent upgrading systems so that property owners can get more coverage with the rationed water. An Irrigation Association certified irrigation contractor and a certified landscape irrigation auditor, as well as an EPA Water Sense Partner, he says this is the true way to get “maximum performance” from the system and stretch water.

In addition to installing water storagereservoirs, Jeff Pico specializes inrenovating irrigation systems withthe most efficient components. Underneath this lawn in Buford, Ga., lies a 15,000-gallon water storage system that will carry the Goddard School throughemergency drought restrictions.

Efficiency for Pico involves irrigation scheduling, basing watering rates on measured evapotranspiration rates and the use of more advanced systems such as drip. He recommends the use of equipment such as the Rain Bird ET Manager in coordination with the controller so that during drought conditions plants in the landscape get only the amount of water they need to survive.

On shrubs and trees he recommends the installation of a drip system, and on turf he advises going to efficient heads, such as Rain Bird pressure-reduction rotors, which equalize pressure and give uniform watering at each head, taking care to properly size the quarter and half-circle heads. When he installs a system, he wants to not only properly design sprinkler head patterns, he advises doing a water audit on the system. He sees sprinkler systems that are only 40 percent efficient, and he can bring that up to 70 percent or more if allowed to design it under Irrigation Association guidelines.

Pico’s sense of conservation and his drive for efficiency move him to try to educate people to have a better understanding of their place in an environment that will accommodate their landscapes only as long as they match it to available resources. That is particularly true of water, which may only become more erratic as climate change encroaches.

“Look at what you have—it’s not infinite,” Pico tries to impress on his clients. By designing irrigation systems for the finite, they can still maintain beautiful landscapes.

Don Dale is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor. He resides in Altadena, Calif.